by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 27, 2015

Will Smith stars in 'Focus'
Will Smith stars in 'Focus'  (Source:Warner Bros. Entertainment)

The new Will Smith movie, "Focus," lives up to its title. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra, the film John Requa has a way of peering, cleanly and crisply, at whatever genre its gaze settles on: Romantic comedy, stylish caper flick, thriller, crime drama. But the focus in every case is of the shallow sort, and the movie jumps from mood to mood, tone to tone, and genre to genre -- sometimes, jarringly, in the middle of a scene.

Things start out promisingly enough, as con artist Nicky (Smith) treats himself to an evening of fine dining. He allows himself to be lured by aspiring con woman Jess (Margot Robbie), which is understandable for a straight guy since she's a knockout, but he's not suckered by her for a moment. "You guys suck," he laughs at Jess and her accomplice when they try to shake him down.

Jess, initially put off, is soon intrigued by the smooth, smart con artist, and wants a piece of his action -- his professional action, she makes clear, though there's plenty of sexual heat bubbling underneath their mentor/student relationship. After a week in New Orleans of lifting wallets and slipping watches off the unwary -- it's a sort of pickpocket boot camp crossed with an annual moneymaker that nets Nicky and his felonious friends more than a million -- Jess is ready for bigger things, and Nicky makes sure she learns by doing.

But when the romantic angle gets a little too intense for Nicky, he feels the need to cut and run. Years later, working another con for a major racing figure name Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) and working toward a massive payday, Nicky finds his game disrupted by Nicky's sudden reappearance. Now he has an extra set of plates to keep spinning the air: Can he pull of a multi-layered con while simultaneously winning back the one he let slip away?

Smith is the epitome of cool, blending physical swagger with fathomless calm under every sort of pressure. When his emotions start to get the better of his character, Smith allows the fault lines in his sleek, shiny shell to grow barely bigger than hairline cracks; otherwise, he keeps himself tightly under control, which is a necessity since Garriga's security man, Owens (Gerald McRaney, in full-bore cantankerous mode) is keeping a watchful eye on his every move.

Other surprising faces litter the flick, too. BD Wong crops up as a businessman whose gambling addition sparks Nicky's own bug, leading the con man toward what looks like certain downfall. Adrian Artiness steals the show as a huge, deadpan "Persian" guy with a filthy sense of humor but a lovable affect.

Margot Robbie ("Pan Am," "The Wold of Wall Street"), for her part, could be a major star if she avoids becoming the flavor of the month. Her character blends girlish sweetness and tough savvy; she and Smith are entertaining to behold, whether in the movie's comic, dramatic, or thriller moments.

But therein lies the real problem with "Focus." The movie just won't settle in and become any one thing. It's fine for a drama to have light moments of comedy, or a comedy to have dramatic beats; but this film has no self-control, and plunges from one genre into another at a moment's notice... literally, at one point, as when Smith, despite being in a harrowing situation, suddenly pulls one of his trademark faces and the entire mood shifts. In the end you don't end up laughing with this movie as much as groaning at it.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.